Changeup has Villanueva on fast track
Righty inching nearer to Majors as confidence in pitch grows
PHOENIX -- It's the first inning of a Cactus League game between the Brewers and Rangers, and Milwaukee right-hander Carlos Villanueva has fallen behind in the count, 3-1, to Texas outfielder Frank Catalanotto.
A cripple pitch to a dangerous veteran left-handed hitter like Catalanotto would be a tough assignment for any pitcher, especially a 23-year-old right-hander.
But this is no run-of-the-mill 23-year-old.
"It's very rare to see a young pitcher with that good of a changeup and who has an idea of how to pitch," Brewers catcher Johnny Estrada said after Villanueva induced Catalanotto to pop out to him on a changeup. "That's a very good Major League pitch for him right now, and his fastball and curveball are good enough. He's got the stuff to do a lot of things at the Major League level."
Estrada would know. The 2004 All-Star has caught hundreds of changeups over the years, some good, some that never should have been thrown.
"I caught Chris Reitsma when I was with Atlanta," Estrada said. "But Villanueva's [changeup] is different. He's got good arm speed -- it really fools hitters -- and he has the confidence to use it at any time in the count. Some pitchers with changeups won't use them in certain counts."
Villanueva began the 2006 season at Double-A Huntsville, then moved up to Triple-A Nashville, where he went 7-1 with a 2.71 ERA in 11 games. He was also called up twice to Milwaukee, where he went 2-2 with a 3.69 ERA in 10 games.
Villanueva, who was obtained from the Giants along with pitcher Glenn Woolard on March 30, 2004, in a deal that sent pitchers Wayne Franklin and Leo Estrella to San Francisco, taught himself the changeup during the 2005 offseason. He tried various grips and eventually found the one that gave the changeup the proper backspin.
It was a eureka moment and one that accelerated his career track.
"It started dropping like it should, and I was using the same arm motion," Villanueva said. "It's become my best pitch, a pitch I can use as an out pitch or at any time, really."
Villanueva really isn't afraid to throw the changeup in any situation. He threw one to Sammy Sosa in the same game, and the outfielder hammered it -- for a long foul ball. He fell behind Brad Wilkerson, but got him to ground out on a changeup. He struck out Nelson Cruz with another.
Villanueva hung a changeup to Miguel Ojeda, who hit it out of the park -- the only hit Villanueva would allow on the day -- but when he left the game, he was the pitcher of record and would have improved to 3-0 on the spring had the Brewers staff held the lead.
So far this spring, Villanueva is 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA. He has struck out 12, hasn't issued any walks and has limited opposing hitters to a .211 batting average.
"His changeup is really, really good -- that's his best pitch," Brewers manager Ned Yost said. "He has a lot of confidence in it; he commands it very well."
Villanueva recently added another pitch to what is now a five-pitch arsenal.
"[Former Brewers righty] Tomo Ohka helped me with a two-seam sinker," Villanueva said. "I started working on it with him at the end of last season. It's become a nice little weapon for me."
Perhaps it will bring the talented Villanueva to the Major Leagues again this season. His performance so far would seem to make it hard to send him back to the Minors.
"That's his job -- to keep pitching like this," Yost said when asked if that decision would be a tough one.
If he keeps pitching this well, it would be hard to keep him down. Villanueva isn't thinking about what might happen, yet he senses something with this team.
"Something about this year feels special," Villanueva said. "I don't know if it's all of the young talent we have or the expectations we have or what, but I think it has the makings of a special team. It feels like home here, and I hope I'm a part of it."
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.